See the Whirlpool Galaxy Through the Eyes of NASA's 'Great Observatories'

Three powerful space observatories reveal the Whirlpool Galaxy as a wonder of star formation and star death in a new video from the Space Telescope Science Institute, which performs the science operations for the Hubble Space Telescope.

The 3-minute series of images opens with a stunning visual-wavelength view of the galaxy, a supernova (star explosion)-rich zone that lies about 30 million light-years from Earth in the direction of the northern constellation Canes Venatici. The Whirlpool Galaxy is officially known by astronomers as M51 or NGC 5194.

"The Whirlpool Galaxy is perhaps the most striking example of a spiral galaxy," Hubble officials say in the video. "Different wavelength observations reveal different structures in the galaxy. In three dimensions, the galaxy's spiral arms whirl through a pancake-shaped disk." [When Galaxies Collide: Amazing Hubble Telescope Photos]

The video steps through different wavelength observations of the galaxy in visible light (Hubble), infrared light (Spitzer Space Telescope) and X-rays (Chandra X-Ray Observatory), explaining what each space telescope shows astronomers. 

The Whirlpool galaxy, seen here in a still from a NASA video, stars in a stunning new visualization that combines observations from the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes and Chandra X-ray Observatory. (Image credit: Visualization: F. Summers, J. DePaxquale, D. Player (STScI), K. Arcand (SAO/CXC), R. Hurt (Caltech/IPAC); Music: "Cylinder Five," Chirs Zabriskie, CC BY 4.0)

In visible light, astronomers can spot some older and younger stars: The yellower and older stars are near the center of the galaxy, while younger and bluer stars tend to cluster in the galaxy's spiral arms. Infrared light shows the oldest and reddest stars, which populate the entire galaxy. Meanwhile, X-rays show the high-energy zones. This includes energetic emissions from binary star systems with black holes or neutron stars. (A neutron star is the densely packed star core left behind after the original star explodes in a supernova.)

Different wavelengths can also reveal the overall structure of the galaxy, the video explains. Embedded in the center of Whirlpool is a supermassive black hole, which emits powerful X-rays. Cool gas and dust in the arms shines in infrared temperatures, revealing the galactic structure. Meanwhile, hotter gas in stellar nurseries shows the presence of supernova explosions, which heats the gas to high temperatures.

"The contrasting features seen in multiwavelength studies greatly enhance our understanding of galactic structure," the video concludes. 

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: